The July 2019 issue of Tempo includes three contributions from yours truly: an analytical article on Helen Grime’s music and reviews of Joseph Straus’s latest book on disability studies and musical modernism and Zeno Baldi’s portrait CD on Stradivarius.
Experimental Music Since 1970
By Jennie Gottschalk
From the very beginning of Experimental Music Since 1970, author Jennie Gottschalk lets us know that her perspective is that of a “maker,” a composer. This is instructive as to the book’s approach and to its inclusion and, in some cases, exclusion, of experimental composers who have made an impact over the past five decades. These decisions are based on a particular composer’s vantage point rather than an attempt to construct an all-encompassing canon of “important” figures, which in the fragmented and various perspectives of the postmodern era no book could truly do without devolving into mere name-checking and cataloging. Happily, Gottschalk’s book is anything but a catalog — her portraits of various wings of experimental music are vivid and often detailed. It is the viewpoint of a fascinating “maker,” someone who embraces an array of imaginative approaches to musical experimentation.
Gottschalk suggests that one of the purposes of her volume is to serve as a continuation of Michael Nyman’s seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Perhaps in response to the centrality of Cage in the earlier volume, she begins Experimental Music Since 1970 with a deconstruction of the composer’s 4’33”, pointing out the various pathways into experiment that the piece still affords today. Gottschalk identifies these central concerns as follows: indeterminacy, change, non-subjectivity, research, and experience. While it is quickly pointed out that not all experimental music engages all of these issues, they prove to be pivotal in the way that Gottschalk defines and describes experimentation.
With these initial precepts laid out, the book proceeds to further parse experimentation into particular spheres of activity, with each chapter tackling one or more of these. Thus we are spared a chronological overview and when concerns overlap in composers’ works, they may reappear throughout the volume. This does lead one to question certain choices of space allocation. For instances, even given all of his fertile creativity, why is Peter Ablinger so often referenced while microtonal composers Ezra Sims and Joe Maneri and hypercomplex composers Brian Ferneyhough and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf are not mentioned even once? Apparently, the second modern school falls outside of Gottschalk’s purview. While one can fall back on her statement that she is a composer rather than a historian, it is somewhat disappointing that these significant types of experimentation seem “beyond the pale” (interestingly, there is similar neglect of American late modernism in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent After the Fall: Music Since 1989). The presence of experimental jazz is also spotty, with a few references to artists such as Anthony Braxton and George Lewis but nothing about, for instance, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra. Another challenge is some haphazard copy-editing, particularly in the book’s latter half.
These caveats aside, what is covered here is a splendor of imaginative music-making that will supply much food for thought. Gottschalk is particularly in her element when discussing the Wandelweiser collective, approaches to instrument-building, ad hoc electronics, improvisation, sound art, ecomusic in general and site-specific works in particular. The book’s inclusivity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality may, along with Rutherford-Johnson’s similarly sensitive treatment of these issues in Music Since 1989, help to slay a few stereotypes about composers. Gottschalk’s website, Sound Expanse, continues to build upon the achievements and aims of Experimental Music Since 1970, providing a valuable companion to the book and a “must bookmark” resource all by itself.
The Spectral Piano
From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age
By Marilyn Nonken, with a chapter by Hugues Dufourt
Cambridge University Press, 192 pp., 2014/2016 (paperback edition)
By Christian Carey
Recently reissued in paperback, pianist/author Marilyn Nonken’s book The Spectral Piano is a fascinating examination of the history of piano music beginning in the mid-1800s that leads to its use in a spectral context from the 1970s to the present. Nonken’s thesis is that the employment of the piano to imitate the harmonic series so prevalent in contemporary spectralism is a venerable practice; that composers have long sought to subvert the equal-tempered tuning of the piano with various manners of spacing and subterfuge in order to align it more closely with the deployment of overtones found in nature.
Nonken is particularly successful in this pursuit. She connects the music of Liszt, Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, Boulez, and others to the project of proto-spectralism. The author is also convincing in her positioning of recent American composers, such as Joshua Fineberg (a composer whom she has championed on recording) and Edmund Campion, and British composers James Dillon and Jonathan Harvey, as heirs to the traditions of spectralism. Nonken also excels at making connections between technological advances in measuring acoustic phenomena and parallel advances in proto-spectral and spectral music.
As a matter of course, French spectralism of the 1970s-90s occupies a central role in the book. Discussion of Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey, and Hugues Dufourt, the latter of whom contributes a chapter, “Spectralism and the Pianistic Expression,” appended at the end of the book, provides a thought-provoking survey of these composers’ spectral works. In turn, the students of this first generation of spectralists, most of whom studied at IRCAM, such as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Philippe Hurel, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, are presented as “hybrid spectralists;” heirs to a tradition, but one that they have sought to expand through the addition of non-spectral elements from new complexity, second modernity, electroacoustic, and other areas of compositional activity. A curious omission from this section is Georg Friedrich Haas, whose work flow and friction for sixteenth tuned piano four hands is organized using principles of spectralism.
In The Spectral Piano, Nonken brings to bear both her extensive knowledge of piano literature as an estimable performer of both contemporary and earlier works, as well as an impressive scholarly acumen. The result is a volume that will cause much rethinking of traditional piano music and exposure to a new and vital repertoire. Now that the book has been made available in paperback, it is a must-have for the libraries of composers and pianists.
Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970
By David Toop
Bloomsbury, 330 pp.
Even given the relative expanse of a projected two-volume history of improvised music, David Toop has set lofty goals for himself. In volume one, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970, he discusses a number of musical figures from improvising communities: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy are a small sampling of those who loom large. John Cage is a totemic figure discussed from a variety of angles. Such collectives as AMM, MEV, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Company, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza feature prominently as well. In addition, Toop connects improvisation to a panoply of other reference points, musical and otherwise, such as rock, concert music, fine art, film, and literature. Politics and historical events and their influence on musicians is a particularly well-drawn through line.
One would be hard pressed to take a strictly chronological approach to reading Into the Maelstrom. A great pleasure is the oftimes improvisatory feel of its labyrinthine passages. In this sense it jubilantly resembles the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its title. No matter how far-flung a new passage may at first seem, Toop finds a way to integrate it into the fabric of the book. For the most part, Maelstrom is confined to the genesis and development of free playing in the decades leading up to 1970. Digressions from this era, such as transcribed later interviews and personal anecdotes, are used to provide a more comprehensive portrait of particular figures and incidents. Nor does Toop eschew discussion of earlier figures. Indeed, his profiles of musicians such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Stuff Smith trace a lineage of free playing, or at the very least playing on the cusp of free, that is farther reaching than is often enough acknowledged. Flashbacks and flashforwards are also employed to tease out thematic issues, such as audience responsiveness (or non-responsiveness, and occasionally dangerous hostility), interaction between musicians (with its own degrees of responsiveness and even dangerous hostility), and, especially, issues of freedom, both in musical and political contexts. Thus, Into the Maelstrom allows us a glimpse into an ever-changing landscape of varying interactions, all of which contribute to the development of improvisation. I’m eager to read its companion second volume.